Saint Luke The Evangelist


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »

(October 18) 

Almighty God, who calledst Luke the physician…
2 Timothy 4:5-15
Luke 10:1-7a

The Luke in 2 Timothy and Philemon is almost universally supposed to be the author of the Gospel in his name and Acts which constitute two volumes of a single work beginning before the birth of Jesus and ending just before the death of Paul, carrying the story of salvation from its traditional Jewish centre in Jerusalem to the Gentile centre of Rome. There is a tradition, as he was not an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus, that he gained his information from Mary but it is much more likely that his primary source was Paul with whom, his text implies (Acts 16:10 onwards), he travelled on his later journeys. His style is cultivated: his narrative skills are unparalleled in the New Testament (cf The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:30-37; The Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32; Rhoda, Acts 12:11-17); his philosophy is lucid (cf Acts 17:22-33); and he demonstrates a unique sympathy with the figures in his narrative. Perhaps his greatest achievement is the first two chapters of his gospel which contain a unique narrative of the events before (The angelic appearance to Zechariah, The Annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Circumcision of John) during (the Bethlehem stable, the shepherds) and after (the Circumcision of Jesus and his juvenile Temple visit) the birth of Jesus, including three of the great Canticles (Magnificat, Venite and Nunc Dimittis) and the basic text of the Hail Mary; but, perhaps more critically, without Luke we would have no account of the church from the Ascension to the arrival of Paul in Rome, including the ground breaking ‘Council of Jerusalem’ (Acts 15) which settled the Gentile question. Tradition says that he was a physician (a point heavily laboured in the Collect) and this may account for his particular sympathy for the poor and for women. As the Epistle points out, he was Paul’s last companion before his martyrdom. Luke is supposed to have lived for more than 20 years after Paul, dying in Boeotia c84 which makes it difficult to understand why Acts ends so unsatisfactorily, not reporting the deaths of Peter and Paul. Perhaps he thought that these late events would spoil the balance of a two-part work which had the key events at its centre. Although his account largely agrees with Paul’s own it would be a mistake to think of Luke as an historian (there is, for example, no other contemporary reference to the Census in Luke 2:1); to his contemporaries he would have been thought of as a biographer but for us he is primarily a theologian. The closing passage of 2 Timothy (echoing Philemon 24), describes Luke, who only mentions himself incidentally, as being faithful to the end. Its main message is to commend evangelism to Timothy while detailing its tribulations; Paul, about to die, is passing on the torch. The Gospel passage may have been chosen because there is an unsubstantiated tradition that Luke was one of the seventy who were sent out. Again, it speaks of hardship, of lambs being sent among wolves.

These passages are more relevant now than they were when they were chosen. At that time there were disagreements about the precise nature of what different denominations believed but basic belief in God was almost universal in Europe. Today, when the Church is deeply concerned with Evangelism it is challenged to reach people who have been unchurched for so long that nothing can be assumed. The power of an affirming church is counterbalanced by an increasing proportion of the population which does not know the basic elements of the Christian story; and as the gap widens the task of mission becomes ever more difficult, forcing us to think how we can gain a foothold now that so much of the Christian common frame of reference has collapsed. These passages are so important because the difficulty of the task, the necessary setbacks and sacrifices, can be easily obscured by ‘management speak’ about ‘reach’ and ‘targets’ as if mission were a niche in marketing. We can also recognise Jesus’ observation that the harvest is great but the labourers are few.

There is, however, a broader lesson to be drawn from Luke. He would never have cited the commonplace that religion and politics do not mix. He puts into the mouth of Mary (Luke 1:46-55 after 1 Samuel 2:1-10) the most radical Christian prayer and his rendering of the message of Jesus transforms Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) to “Blessed are the poor” (Matthew 6:20). For him the theology of creation and salvation are inextricably bound up with social justice. This has been a hard lesson for a church which abandoned its humble origins to become the established church of the Roman Empire under Constantine early in the 4th Century and has since possessed a high degree of wealth, power and influence. Even today the Church of England is part of the establishment and is, in many places, almost exclusively a middle class phenomenon. A parallel tendency has been, against the tenor of Luke, for the Church to lecture poor people on their morality rather than standing alongside them in their struggle for justice. One of the small ironies of living out a flawed witness to Jesus is the frequency with which we say the Magnificat but do so little about its fulfilment. It is now fashionable to remind ourselves that the Church is incarnational but, in the sense that Luke understands the term, our commitment is sporadic. Jesus took sides but our fear of being accused of partisanship seems to hold us back. In this sense, although Luke appeals to contemporary sentiment, his is the most challenging of the Gospels.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Discuss the unique historical contribution of Luke/Acts
  2. How unique is Luke’s interest in the poor and in women?
  3. Without Luke, what is left of the infant Jesus?
  4. Without Luke, what do we know of the birth and early development of Christianity?
  5. Should religion and politics mix?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)